Matching to a pandemic

In early March my classmates and I were packed like sardines into a bar, all of us wearing the same white t-shirt. Words like “Western”, “Gen Surg”, “UBC”, “Family”, and in my case “Toronto” and “Emerg” scrawled hastily on the front. Ecstatic at having matched, coronaviruses, social distancing, and PPE could not have been farther from our minds.

This scene is inconceivable now, especially as the final few weeks of our medical school careers were abruptly cancelled with an email one Thursday evening. No one thought that our final lecture would be a sparsely attended affair on herbal medicine, that we would be receiving our degrees by courier instead of on a stage, or that many of us won’t see each other again before residency begins. I am fortunate to be in the privileged position of having my future residency training position secured, of having a safe place to live, and of having money to pay for the essentials. These elements give my mind the opportunity to wander, to consider the bizarre space that those of us in this position now inhabit. Aside from a few thousand dollars in fees paid to a variety of organizations with four-lettered acronyms, I am exactly as competent (or incompetent) today as I will be on July 1st. The difference will be that on that day I will take on the mantle of ‘resident’ and be expected to jump headfirst into whatever the world looks like from the doors of the emergency department at whatever hour my first shift begins.

I am excited, and more than a little scared, about this moment. I’m anxious to be able to do something tangible to help more experienced practitioners (read: everyone) provide care to the never ending parade of humanity that arrives at the hospital doors every day. With recent news of senior medical students being called to begin residency early, perhaps that day will come sooner than expected, although I sincerely hope it does not come to that. But the fact remains that the past four years have conditioned us to always be on the lookout for a way to help the team. The famous last words of every medical student’s day are, after all: “Is there anything else I can help with?”

So, what can I, and those like me, help with? Of course, staying physically distant from others, scrubbing my hands like my attending is watching, and supporting friends and family who may not be as fortunate. Medical students across the country have organized to provide childcare, collect much needed PPE, and check in on seniors, the goal being to lift even a tiny amount of stress from healthcare workers stretched thin. We are constantly on the lookout for ways to serve, and many classes have reached out to health authorities to lend a hand wherever and whenever we might be useful. But my mind continually jumps ahead to the first of July.

Two months ago, none of us could have imagined that our match would coincide with this once-a-century pandemic. Instead of being concerned with finishing classes, celebrating with family and planning for that treasured pre-residency vacation, I am left with a gnawing anxiety. Memories of Match Day, that now seem to have been formed in a different era, have been displaced by questions about what all of us brand new PGY1’s be walking into. Will I be a burden or have the capacity to help? How will our excitement to begin our chosen specialties meld with the weariness of those who have been on the front lines of this pandemic since Day 1? How can I make the most of this newfound time? And so, we read and learn, stress and relax, hoping to be ready to dive in and help whenever we can. Until then, you’ll catch me here, >6 feet away from anyone else.

James Riggs